Joyce Carol Oates: 2019 National Book Festival


[ Applause ]>>Peter Vankevich: Okay, wow. Joyce Carol Oates, what
a way to finish here. And we — [ Applause ] And someone got on my radar list because she’s been here twice
this morning, Emily Eakin, and she’s with the New York
Times and she will be part of the conversation there. So I want to welcome you both. [ Applause ]>>Emily Eakin: Okay, it’s
my pleasure this evening to be speaking with
Joyce Carol Oates. Is this better? Oh, wait. Before we begin, I
just wanted to thank the Library of Congress, our wonderful
host, for this event. It’s an extraordinary
thing [applause]. Yes and the way this will work,
Joyce and I will talk for, I think, about 30 minutes and then we will open
the floor to questions. Your questions are
much smarter than mine so please formulate them. Hang on to them and we will
call on you in a little while. So now for Joyce herself. Where to begin? This thing, Joyce, she hast
two new books out practically on the same day,
I think, in June. A collection of stories called
“Night-Gaunts” and a novel that began as a short story, I
think, called “My Life as a Rat” and we’ll talk about
them both as a kind of, I think I work well as a prism
into her fiction generally. Joyce has said and I quote here, “that she spends an annoying
amount of time doing nothing.” But we that’s not true, right? She’s written dozens of novels,
perhaps a thousand stories, at least two memoirs, plays,
essays, lectures and poems. She’s won two O. Henry Awards,
the National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal. She’s a five-time Pulitzer Prize
finalist and this year, Joyce, you’re the winner of
the Jerusalem Prize which is awarded every
two years to a write who tackles the themes
of human freedom. And I was looking at the
list of previous winners and I noticed you’re
only the second woman after Susan Sante,
to win this prize. And I’m not sure what
that means and I wanted to ask you why is it that
only two women have been, have earned this distinction?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I have no idea why anything
takes place actually but I wouldn’t, I
wouldn’t presume to know. It’s a prize given in Israel. It’s given every
other, every other year. It’s just probably an
accident, you know [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: Okay, well,
Joyce, thank you for sort of path-breaking here. Let’s hope that other women
are recognized for dealing with issues of human
freedom in their writing. Joyce has also taught
at Princeton since 1978 and is currently the
Roger S. Berlin Class of ’52 Professor
Emeritus of Humanities. So when she’s not
writing, evidently, she’s sort of [inaudible]
the infinite ways of being that are peculiar
to our species. And I started to make a list of
some of the issues and themes that have come up in her fiction and that list included
matricide, abortion, scientific misconduct, brain
surgery, cancer, amnesia, sexual obsession, political
assassination, murder, sexual abuse, serial
killing, drug addiction, the supernatural, crime,
drug addiction, racism. You can see that there’s
almost no point to continuing because this list
quickly becomes absurd. We’re basically summarizing
the totality of human experience [laughter]. So Joyce, how do you, how do
you select from that universe? What, how do you
conceive your subjects?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
You left out writing about cats [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: I
[inaudible], sorry.>>Joyce Carol Oates: There’s
a lot of that on Twitter so in case there’s anybody in
the room who follows Twitter. I really don’t know
how to answer that. Basically, most writers
and artists, I think, are quite immersed in
one project at a time. And I don’t have, I don’t
have much sense of it in that, that interests them, you know,
things I’ve done in the past. It’s more like the present
project is very engrossing and challenging and frustrating,
you know, upsetting, depressing and so each day has
its own challenges. And what I’m working on now probably does have
some relationship to things that are done in the past. I mean, I’m sure there’s a
kind of overlapping themes, that kind of all greater
together which is true of most writers, I
think, obsessed with, obsessive-compulsive
themes that keep emerging.>>Emily Eakin: Well,
let’s talk about “My Life as a Rat” for example. So this novel began as a short
story and you returned to it and developed it into a novel. It’s a novel about a
murder and the repercussions that this murder, which
is racially motivated, have on the murderer’s
family and in particular, the murderer’s sister, a young
girl, Violet, who testifies against her brother and
pays a steep price for it. Tell us about the
genesis of this story and why you went back to it?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well, there are many reasons why
a person writes a novel. I think it’s like, I think of
the novel as like a large river and the many tributaries
that flow into it. So at one point, when I
wrote the short story, I was very interested in
the theme of being disowned which I’ve actually written
about a couple of times. Being disowned by a
parent or by parents. And how it speaks to our
great anxiety, I think, about being lost or being
separated from the meaning and love in our lives. So I was probably thinking about after some specific
emotional reason at that time. And then after I
wrote the short story, it appeared in Harper’s
Magazine but it always seemed like it needed to be
developed because many, many decades are
kind of compressed into a short story
form and basically, the novel would then open and
develop the character who goes through all about 20
years of her life or so. So the short story was
not really an ideal form for the theme. And I was also thinking
about and this is subject that interests me all the
time, the ethical obligations that we have to our common
weal, to other people and contrast sometimes
contrary to family and tribal allegiances. So those questions, I think, are
very much with us all the time. Do we have an ethical obligation to morality that’s
beyond just the family and loyalty to the family? Or is loyalty to the family
something primal and elementary? So I was clearly thinking
about those themes because I remember years ago, when the Unabomber was
finally identified, it was because his brother was
willing to come to the FBI. And at the time, the
brother, I think, negotiated that the
Unabomber would not, maybe not be executed. There was some sort of
negotiation there with the FBI. But some people felt that he
was “ratting on his brother.” But I felt it was really unfair. I think that we have
an ethical obligation to the common weal rather
than just the commitment to blood loyalty or you
know, your own family. And so –>>Emily Eakin: Especially
maybe when it involves acts that of violence,
of harm to others.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Exactly and things that might happen in the future. Yeah, so that seemed
to me an ongoing theme that we’re all sort
of engaged with.>>Emily Eakin: Now, in this
book, as in many of your books, there is an act of
violence at its center and you’re often described as
a writer fixated on violence or maybe I should rephrase
that and say accused. You were a writer accused
of obsessing over violence as if this is something really
that should not be done. And you’ve even written an
essay about this because you’re so frequently asked,
you know, “What is your, what is it with you
and violence?” But I think the question
must be asked here. It does arise in this book
and I guess what I want to know is what have
you learned as a writer from investigating violence
and its repercussions in a literary context?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, you’re, so deconstruct your question
because it’s a complex question. I think initially, I thought
that writers of some seriousness who may be in the past have
been mostly men, you know, because women were really
expected to be writing about domestic scenes
and situations. But a writer like Shakespeare
or Melville or Dostoyevsky, it probably wouldn’t really
occur that to an interviewer to ask them why is
your writing violent? Shakespeare would have said,
“Well, I’m writing tragedy. How do you, how do you
have a ritualistic tragedy without somebody
getting killed?” Now so the stage is almost,
you know, piled with corpses at the end of a traditional
tragedy. But I don’t think it would
have occurred to anybody to ask most male writers why
their writing is violent. They would just say, “Well, I’m
holding a mirror up to reality,” which is what Stendhal
said, “The novel is like a mirror moving
along a roadway.” And you must not accuse the
author of creating the roadway because the world is what it is
and the writer is reflecting it. It was always thought though,
I think, for many centuries that women had a particular
focus on domestic life and family life and
childbirth and child-bearing and child-raising that there
was something very special about that, that women
could, should do and knew how to do a little better. But I think today, that’s
all been really jettisoned.>>Emily Eakin: Your writing
seems to show that violence in the domestic sphere are not
at all incompatible either.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, that’s very true. But I don’t necessarily make
it much about the violent act. It’s more like the
consequences of violence and how it can be
blurred with violence. It can be psychological
violence, emotional violence and as well as the more
obvious physical violence. So all these things, I think,
are embedded in the concept of art which is really
based on conflict. You can’t have any
art without conflict. You have something like
wallpaper, you know, your impressionistic art which
is very beautiful but somewhat, you know, historical
and timeless. But if you’re writing about
drama, writing about people in conflict with one another,
probably something that has to happen and make
somebody unhappy.>>Emily Eakin: So what,
do you put yourself in a Stendhalian camp? Are you holding a
mirror up to society or are you fulfilling the
needs of art for conflict or are you doing both?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, I’ve always, I’ve always really been drawn to
realistic, the realistic agenda in fiction that art holds
up a mirror to reality. And I think within
that large agenda, the writer chooses the
genre, the form, the style, what kind of language
or you know, vocabulary you’re going to have. But then, if you’re committed to what I would call
psychological realism, that’s sort of the larger
commitment that it is a, that’s a realism rather than
a fairy tale or a fantasy. So that brings with that
many aspects of life that are sometimes unpleasant or
you know, we suffer each alone and you know, we die each alone. These are sort of primal facts
that it’s not helpful to pretend that they don’t exist.>>Emily Eakin: This
is interesting to me because some critics
have suggested that there’s a tendency
in your fiction for women especially young
women to be victims often of male violence and not
just to male violence but of other’s moral
turpitude, let’s say, so that the ramifications
that you’re dealing with often feature
that there’s a kind of Joyce Carol Oates’ typology. And I just, I wonder what
you would say to that which is often voiced?>>Joyce Carol Oates: I guess,
I should just confess and admit that I’m the only
person who’s ever noticed that minor girls are sometimes
victimized by men [laughter]. I mean, I’m the first
person like it doesn’t, it doesn’t exist in reality
and only in my fiction. And so, I’ll just
confess to that. It’s such a strange
predilection. I don’t know where
I got it from.>>Emily Eakin: It seems to
be, well, a predilection held against you but you
know, it’s interesting because in the collection, “Night-Gaunts” there are
some naive young women. I’m thinking particularly
of the woman at the center of a fascinating story called
“The Experimental Subject” who is a young woman,
very earnest, inexperienced whose
taken advantage of by an unscrupulous researcher
and maybe the object or subject or both of a very unethical
scientific experiment. And yet, in the same collection, is another story
featuring a just-as-innocent and inexperienced young
man who is tormented by his Sunday School teacher
into a kind of madness. This woman becomes
obsessed with him. So there are just to point
out, there are male victims or men playing that role in
your fiction on occasion.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Right, well, I don’t necessarily
always think about gender. It’s not, it’s probably
not the most interesting or obvious thing that
one thinks about.>>Emily Eakin: One of the
things to note about that story, that story about the
young boy tormented by a Sunday school teacher,
“The Sign of the Beast,” is that he has a
birthmark on his face that the Sunday school teacher
comments on relentlessly. And this is a source of
embarrassment and shame for him. And this is also, I think, a recurring feature
of your fiction. Often there are physical
marks, deformities, in fact, that’s not the only
story in the collection in which there is a birthmark. The father in “Night-Gaunts”
has a mark on his face that becomes more inflamed
as he becomes more and more, increasingly ill and deranged. And I’m struck by that
and I wanted to ask you about the significance
of those marks.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
It’s probably a residue of Gothic fiction, sort of
Hawthornian badge, the evident, the overt badge of some
sort of inner conflict. But the “Night-Gaunts”
is a novella really about H.P. Lovecraft.>>Emily Eakin: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: You’ve
probably noticed that. And so, when I’m writing in the
Gothic mode, I’m more likely to work with elements
that are somewhat surreal. And “My Life as a Rat”
is a realistic novel. Most of the stories of
“Night-Gaunts” are surreal and they move into
another dimension of dream, of hallucination or a
parable or a dark fantasy. So it’s a slightly
different consciousness. And these genres, I think, are
helpful if you’re a reader. You know, if you’re
reading a mystery novel, a procedural thriller,
a detective novel, you are probably reading
a realistic portrayal of police work and
the law and so forth. And the supernatural is
not supposed to emerge in that procedural
detective fiction. There’s a set of implicit
contract with the reader in these certain genres. I would guess that
a romance genre, there will be some
sort of happy ending. Can’t imagine what that
would be in a romance genre. And with Gothic fiction,
there may be some resolution at the end because genre fiction
often does have a resolution but it will probably not
be totally realistic. And with mainstream fiction
or literature, let’s say, which is disparate as Joyce’s
“Ulysses” or “Moby Dick,” there’s really no
contract with the author. Any work of serous literature is
somehow setting out to be unique and it might have
a happy ending, it might have an ending
that’s completely mysterious or irresolute. It may be like Joyce’s “Ulysses” where it’s increasingly
difficult and so that one is carried along
with a kind of momentum to see what’s the
writer going to do next. But the genres, for some of
us, genre writing is exciting and exhilarating because
you have essentially a form and then it’s like writing
sonnets where, well, poets do write sonnets today
but they’re not conventional. So we have a form and you
can sort of distort it or do interesting
things with it.>>Emily Eakin: So were
you very conscious of genre when you sit down to write?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Absolutely.>>Emily Eakin: I see, so you’re
working within a self-composed, self-imposed constraints
in that sense. I mean, you, when you’re writing
an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, you’re writing a Gothic story, not a work of realistic
fiction in that sense.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, right. And there’s still realistic
elements and I think many of the elements and the features
of Lovecraft’s actual life. And then by submerging myself in an imagined person
who’s Lovecraft, I’m trying to give
animation to a very fevered and febrile imagination which
was Lovecraft and sort of trying to give life to him and it’s
like paying homage to him because he’s really a
sort of a special person.>>Emily Eakin: Is he a
big influence on your –>>Joyce Carol Oates:
No, I don’t think so. No [laughter]. I read so much, you know. I have been literally
around like for about 500 years [laughter]. And then I’m reading
all of these books. The first book I ever read,
the first two books I ever read when I was nine years old, was
“Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice in the Looking Glass” by Lewis
Carroll that my grandmother, my Jewish grandmother gave
me this wonderful book. So this book has
everything in it because it does have
a subresidue of psychological realism
but it’s very hallucinatory. It’s very, very imaginative. It’s, the books are
like nightmares. They’re filled with all sorts of
extraordinary things plus a kind of ongoing debate of a kind with
Darwinian evolutionary theory and the idea of the survival
of the fittest and so forth. So when I read that like at
the age of nine, obviously, I was taking the very
superficial meaning of “Alice in Wonderland” but I subsequently reread
the novel many times. I’ve even taught
it at Princeton. So it’s like everything
is in that novel. There is realism but it’s mainly
as a so-called children’s book so it’s in that realm where children’s
writing is not realistic. Children’s writing
is fantasy writing. But it’s a very special
kind of fantasy. In the history of our species,
the first kinds of art tend to be child-like and
fantastic and mythic like cave drawings, you know? And it really takes
centuries and centuries to develop what we call
naturalism or realism in the 19th century
because there’s something about the human species. We don’t really want to
see a lot of reality. I think there’s a feeling
that things have to be sort of giving coherence in a
mythological structure. By the time you get to
the 20s, the 20th century or maybe the late 19th century,
we had a very different way of looking at life which
is almost like raw realism with focus on the physicality
of life which you don’t find in earlier forms
very much at all. And on the 20th century for
women, to be able to write about their own bodies, Virginia
Woolf said she could never, she said, “I could not
write about the body.” You know, there’s no
bodies in Virginia Woolf. And there are no
bodies in Henry James. You look in vain for
anything like people sweating or doing things that,
or even eating, I mean, people don’t do any
of those things. But then you come to Doris
Lessing, she, you know, in “The Golden Notebook,”
she is really, really writing about the physicality
of being a woman. And for some people,
that was radical and repulsive and shocking. For other people,
very liberating. I’ve gone on too long to –>>Emily Eakin: No,
this is fascinating. There are a lot of bodies in
Joyce Carol Oates and I want to get back to them because
it’s very interesting. They do seem sort of
avenues into some other level of consciousness, the kind
of deformities or marks in these bodies seem to point to
sources of some psychic wounds or spiritual wounds
or sexual shame often, and that’s a really
important topic, I think. One character in “Night-Gaunts”
talks about the combination of disgust and arousal
that he feels. And I feel this is these sort
of sensations that are provoked by the contemplation of the body or something you
are concerned with. And I wanted you to talk
a little bit about that.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, I’m a storyteller so the stories do
involve people. But it’s not necessarily
myself, you know. They’re all pretty mediated. So I’m interested in telling
stories and finding the tropes and images that will
tell the stories and find the right voice. But you know, there are certain
things that are probably mythic or archetypal that writers
are gravitating toward. You know, it’s not necessarily that one feels personally
that way. I think I have a
somewhat philosophical or aesthetic attitude towards
storytelling that I would like to tell, to me, as
with Shakespeare, mind you, I’m not aligning
myself with Shakespeare. But probably, I really
identify with the idea of the dramatist who’s
displaying human personality in the extraordinary
astonishing varieties of human existence
and personalities. So we have like a stage
populated with people with different attitudes. So there is a story that
will involve sexual shame. There’s a story that
would involve redemption, somebody suffering but then,
you know, overcoming it. And I would like
to tell that story but it doesn’t necessarily mean
that I’ve invested my own self in anyone of those characters.>>Emily Eakin: Of course not. But yet, this is a
reoccurring theme, I think, in the fiction is
serious investigation of erotic attraction and
the sensations behind it. And that does seem to me, really
a distinctive motif in your work and I don’t know another writer who can simultaneously evoke
both the kind of feelings of repulsion and attraction that it strikes me might really
be what the erotic [inaudible] consists of.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I
don’t know, maybe D.H. Lawrence? I mean, I’m probably not unique. It would really depend
upon the work. You mentioned “The
Experimental Subject”. That’s really a long
story novella that is in “Night-Gaunts” and to
me, that was so exciting. I mean, so exciting
because I’m working with the idea of an experiment. And this experiment
actually has been attempted and probably will
be attempted again. It’s mating a human being
with a chimpanzee and seeing if you could get the –>>Emily Eakin: A humanzee,
is that the kind of –>>Joyce Carol Oates:
A human, a humanzee. See if you can get that fetus
and then this, you know, creature to live because when
species, different species mate, they can’t, they
can’t reproduce. Now, from my own research into
it, and I’m very interested in science and so with
connections between science and storytelling because
really exciting experiments are like stories. The scientist says what if and
then creates this experiment. And a brilliant scientist will
create brilliant experiments. Sometimes, it takes you years
to just set up the experiment. So I do know that I think
a Russian scientist, maybe a Soviet scientist
did try that, did try to make,
to make this true.>>Emily Eakin: How
ethically did that work? Because that’s the big moral
question in this, or the –>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Ethical, yeah.>>Emily Eakin: The more
grotesque [inaudible] in this short story is that
there’s a huge ethics violation in that the woman who’s
implanted with the sperm of a chimpanzee does not know
this is happening to her.>>Joyce Carol Oates: She
doesn’t know about it.>>Emily Eakin: So
I’m fascinated that such an experiment
was actually carried out.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, we don’t know exactly because this person, I think, was exiled to Siberia
[laughter]. But there are [inaudible]
of this experiments that are going on right now. I mean, I’m just guessing but I
would guess, I’m just guessing, that maybe another country where
there aren’t ethical restraints and scientists just may be
possibly, they’re trying to transplant a human
brain or a head, a brain. I would guess that’s like
the next thing, you know, because if you were a scientist, you’re always looking
for the next thing. Who would have thought that you
could have heart transplants? You know, in the 19th
century or other centuries, who would have thought you
could get a lung transplant, kidney transplant, all
those, all those procedures, bone marrow, who would ever have
thought that you could do that and the patient would live? So probably, the next step
would be transplanting a brain and that, I think, cannot
be done in North America. But there are other
parts of the world where there are not
these restraints. I was married for 10
years to a neuroscientist and during those years, I did
a lot of reading in science and also scientific misconduct
because my husband wrote a bit about scientific misconduct
which is unethical behavior. But if you back in time,
there were no constraints. Basically, a scientist could do
almost anything they could get away with. A scientist for the
government could set up, well, say atomic bomb experimentation
and having actual soldiers like [inaudible] soldiers
right near, not very far away from the radioactivity. That wasn’t considered at
that time, probably misconduct because there weren’t
laws about it. Now there are laws about it. So in telling the story, I wanted to explore almost
the very real elements of what that experiment would be. And sort of look into it
and almost a realistic way. If there were a realistic
experiment, it would probably go
along these lines. And I wanted to show
partly because I was married to a scientist and was quite
aware of scientific literature, though it’s not, the story is
not a fantasy story of the kind that H.P. Lovecraft would write where it’s just completely
fantastic but more of a quasi-scientific story. So even though it touches upon
the forbidden and the unlikely, at the same time, it
would probably be, this would be the
way it would go.>>Emily Eakin: I wanted to
ask you about your interest in science because
I, it’s quite evident that you have a strong
interest in science. I wondered if you read
scientific journals for fun. And it sounds like maybe
you do and at the same time, since we talked about that, want
to talk a little bit about art because you’ve also
evoked specific paintings and imagined the characters in
them in other works of fiction. And I’m thinking of Edward
Hopper whose painting “11 A.M.” is the subject of a short
story in “Night-Gaunts” and you’ve written about
[Inaudible] painting as well in another context. And so, can you say a
little bit about that?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well,
writers and poets have often, I think, they’re quite
imaginatively stimulated by works of art. And so, it’s not that unusual. I have done a bit of that
also in poetry as well. But somehow, there’s something
about a beautiful painting, a mysterious painting that
one wants to somehow bring it to life and give a
kind of spiritual or psychological inwardness
to characters who seem to be just maybe, you know,
two dimensions and sort of give them three dimensions.>>Emily Eakin: We’ll
be, we’re going to turn to questions in just a minute. But I wanted, before
we get to questions, I want to talk more
generally about your routine because people are so curious,
Joyce, about how you do it. And I know you’re
asked this all the time but satisfy our curiosity today. You’ve given interviews
over the years, going back to the ’70s
about your routine. I’m sure it may have
changed over the years. You’re now on Twitter. I think you have something
like 200,000 followers. What, you know, what do you
get out of social media? How do you, how do
you go about your day? Are you still jogging? What are you reading? All these questions,
we all want to know. Do you write in longhand?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, it’s hard to answer. It’s a sort of a
flurry of questions.>>Emily Eakin: Yes,
you can pick the one you want [laughter].>>Joyce Carol Oates:
The one question is –>>Emily Eakin: Let’s
talk about Twitter.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, Twitter is just sort of like something that’s said
when, you know, the left hand or the left brain or something. Twitter is maybe the equivalent
of writing little aphorisms or little flash pictures. And a lot of what I do on
Twitter is cat pictures because I, many of
the tweets that come on under my name are actually
sent out by the cat [laughter]. I have a cat [laughter]. Cats take over in
the nocturnal hours. And as I said, a rich,
hallucinatory, bizarre, lurid twitter flying
around during the night. That’s because all the cats
have taken over [laughter]. And so my cat is right in there and she’s got this lurid
imagination [laughter]. And people are laughing but you
know, it really is a problem to have a [laughter],
to have a cat that insists upon taking over. And sometimes, they get
in your computer and do and change your writing
and do things and change endings and so forth. It’s actually not my
fault that there’s so much sexual repulsion
[laughter]. It’s that cat. So but one thing you
mentioned a few minutes ago, about the interest in science, I did write a novel a
few years called “The Man Without a Shadow”
and that’s based on the most famous amnesiac
in the history of neuroscience which he was known as HM. I mean, I know his name but I don’t remember
exactly what his name was. But he was always known as HM. So I was very interested in
this phenomenon of a person who had brain damage and he was
not able to remember anything for more than 70 seconds. His long-term memory
was all right. But that would decay
gradually the way all of our memories decay. That was all right. His short-term memory
was only 70 seconds. And so, I was very fascinated. Suzanne Corkin at MIT
who was actually a friend of my husband, Charlie Gross. She had written a book called
“Permanent Present Tense,” the story, the fascinating
story of HM. She was obviously a woman, a
neuroscientist who experimented with this amnesiac
for like 30 years. And she worked with experiments
to explore the nature of memory which are quite fascinating. But so she got to know him
very well and she, I think, she felt real affection for him. But every time he met her like
every time she came in the room, he never seen her before. Over 30 years because he had
a very short-term memory. So I wanted to write about a
woman who does fall in love with her experimental
subject which is, in itself, supposed to be unethical, but
then she really [inaudible] and loves him and then he
never can remember her. And it became almost like a
parable of how we will continue, should continue to love
people close to us who begin to forget us or their memories
are extra thin or people who are ill who are passing away from this even though they’re
still alive but they’re kind of moving in another dimension. That’s the great drama of your
life if you live long enough. So you’re married. You’re going to, you may
outlive your husband. It’s going to be an experience where the personality
starts to change. And how does one deal with that? And I felt that I wanted to
write about somebody who felt that love actually
transcends the memory so that you can continue. You find a way to love
someone even though that person may not even
remember you anymore or the personalities change. So that was very exciting to me
because it seemed to me a kind of writing that I hadn’t, I hadn’t really noticed
anybody else doing and particularly
relevant to our time where some people
would be quite old and they have these illnesses and people are taking
care of them. So that was a novel that
grew out of my relationship with my husband, Charlie,
who was a neuroscientist but definitely only because
of that relationship. It was other writing that I’ve
done sprang from other sources that was particularly
the science. How would you [inaudible] that?>>Emily Eakin: That’s a
very, very moving story and the science has an
allegory really for a kind of general human condition
and it’s interesting. And almost, no, we have to turn
the floor over to questions. So please, approach the
microphone in one of the aisles, if you would like to ask one. And we will call on you. It’s hard for us to see
up here but let’s start.>>Peter Vankevich: We
have a question over here.>>Emily Eakin: Okay, wherever. Go ahead.>>I’m just going to
casually say that you are one of my literary heroes so
thank you for being here. I’m right here, hello
[laughter].>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Can you hear that?>>Emily Eakin: Say that again? I think if I can –>>I said I’m just going to
casually say that you are one of my literary heroes so
thank you for being here.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Oh, thank you. It’s like a circle of hell. We can’t see a thing [laughter]. We can’t see a thing. We’re blind.>>It’s okay. My question is for a writer
who has an extraordinary body of work, and as a reader
[inaudible], as a reader, it seems like you
can do no wrong. I’m wondering, do you still have
specific struggles when you sit at the page to write, whether
it’s on the level of thought or I guess, more general,
the level of being a writer?>>Joyce Carol Oates: I heard about [inaudible]
four syllables.>>Emily Eakin: If you, is
writing a struggle at either at the level of craft
or when you sit down and just be a writer? Yeah, are there any
issues with struggle?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well,
I mean, I hate to sound so personal or confessional. I’m really not in a great
time in my own life right now. So I don’t have a lot of energy. I don’t have the sort
of imaginative energy and ebullience that I
have had in the past. So my concentration
is very broken. I’m not really writing the
way I would like to write. I feel like a snake with
a broken back that’s kind of crawling along, you know. And just sort of, the snake
with broken back, if you can get like this far, that’s
pretty good. So I probably don’t have the
same expectations of myself. But under ordinary
ideal circumstances, I get a lot of my
ideas when I run. I run, I try to run every day. It’s like the one happy
time in my life [laughter]. And running a certain
up along a country road and outside Princeton
and up this hill, it’s just really very exciting. And I will maybe get an idea
for a chapter that I’m working on by the act of running. So when I come back to my desk, I can remember what
I was thinking about. If I can’t do that, my
concentration is very broken. So I can look back upon my own
self and see that at some point, I was really fairly rapidly,
I could write a first draft. I can’t really seem
to do that now. So I’ll just leave
you with that image of the snake with
the broken back. I’m just crawling,
crawling along. All right.>>We have a question.>>Emily Eakin: Over here.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah.>>Hi, I wanted to ask about one of your perhaps lesser discussed
books, “A Rape, A Love Story” which addresses in part the
failure of the justice system and it’s [inaudible] of victims. In light of things like Me
Too and Brett Kavanaugh, I was wondering if
this novel has been one that you’ve reflected on.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, that is a novella that I really [inaudible] about. Obviously, it was written a
long time ago before the Me Too movement but not before the
era which is when as I’m going where women who have
been assaulted and sexually humiliated
and Twittered terribly, if they dared to bring charges
against their assailants or their rapists, they were
the ones who would be raped over mercilessly by
defense attorneys and situations almost literally
unbelievable that women in the past have
had to contend with. Therefore, very few
women would dare to say that they had been raped. I mean, it’s the more
research you do into this, the more outrageous it is. So “Rape, A Love Story”
takes place so maybe, I don’t remember exactly
20 years ago or so. And another novel that deals
with the same subject is “We Were the Mulvaneys” where
a girl, it’s sort of date rape and a girl doesn’t,
she’s very naive. She’s never had any
sexual experience at all and she is gotten drunk by
somebody and she is raped. Then the consequences for her
family and for the community and her going back to
high school and so forth. But I felt very impassioned
by that subject. Now the Me Too movement has
come along subsequently. So there’s much more
consciousness now and much more generalized
and articulate outrage. But in those days,
people really kept quiet. And I think even now, less
than 50% of rapes are reported. But probably in the past, it
was much, much less than that.>>Peter Vankevich:
The next question?>>Hi, I’m a writer myself
and I want to ask you that how much do we take when you’re having the
idea to publishing it? And what’s the difference
of the time that takes the shorter
books to the longer books?>>Joyce Carol Oates: What
is the time that takes for –>>Emily Eakin: The short
books and the long books? How much time does it take
to complete a project? Is that the question? A novella, novel, a short story?>>Peter Vankevich:
She says yes.>>Emily Eakin: Yeah.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well –>>Emily Eakin: So it’s about, it’s about how much time you
spend on different projects.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, obviously, I mean, you could sort of deduce that. The answer would be it depends
on your actual work, you know. “War and Peace” is a long
novel and so one would imagine that it would take a little
longer than the “Great Gatsby” which is a short
novel [laughter]. So I mean, some of this is what
we might call common sense. And so, common sense
will answer.>>Emily Eakin: Maybe it’s
worth adding though, Joyce, because you have a reputation
for such prolific [inaudible], that you often talk about the
amount of revision that you do.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, yeah.>>Emily Eakin: So it’s not as
if when you complete a draft, you send it off and it appears
in print the next month, right? I mean, there’s a lot of –>>Joyce Carol Oates:
That’s true. That’s true. A long novel just demands
a good deal of revision. Sometimes a short novel or
a novella can be written with a certain swiftness
and a momentum almost like a short story
because ideally, that kind of writing should have
its rather swift pacing to it. So sometimes, you can
write that more quickly and have the first draft. With a traditional novel that
takes place over a period of time, you’d probably
do the valid intersections and even decades, you know,
so that there’s a different, more leisurely momentum where
we might work on a novel for several years and
therefore, it would take long. And you might do
research for a novel which if you’re writing a
short story or a novella, you might not feel that you
would need to do research. You’re not going to have
chapters with exposition or background description
because you want to move very swiftly along.>>Emily Eakin: I think
we have time for one or two more questions. And I think I see –>>Peter Vankevich:
We have one last one.>>Joyce Carol Oates: — a
figure over there on the right.>>Hello. My name
is Kathleen O’Neal. And your book, “Blonde” has
actually been on my to-read list for quite a while now. And I know it’s about sort
of the mythology that grew up around Marilyn Monroe. And I know that a lot of
feminists of your generation, you know, Gloria
Steinem and many women, have written about
Marilyn Monroe. And are fascinated by her life. And what that meant in
reference to the culture. And so, I thought I was going to ask you what exactly
intrigued you as an individual about her and also what
kind of research did you do for writing this
book about her life?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well, let’s see, that begins quite
a long time ago. I was looking through
a book in the library, sort of really accidentally. And I saw a photograph
of a young girl about 16 and she was a high school girl. And she had brunette hair
and kind of a sweet face and a little upturned nose. And I was very surprised to see
that was Norma Jean Baker taken when she was, in fact, I
think maybe a sophomore in high school. And she reminded me so much of
maybe my own mother or girls with whom I went to school
many, many years ago. She didn’t look much
like Marilyn Monroe. However, within 15 years or
so, she would be world-famous and she would be dead. I mean, it was a
phenomenon that seemed almost as quintessentially American. You know, you rise very
rapidly from poverty and a very dirty obscurity
like impoverished background with a mother, a schizophrenic
mother and no father at all. And rising very rapidly to a
kind of notoriety and fame. But then also becoming
extinct, sort of like a species that has its, also it
cycled very rapidly. So when I saw that
was Norma Jean Baker who became Marilyn Monroe, I was
suffused with a great excitement about writing about
Norma Jean Baker. And then the Marilyn Monroe
character is one of her roles that she plays later on. She could do Marilyn
Monroe but she’s always, she’s always Norma Jean Baker. And she begins in the novel,
she really begins as a child with a schizophrenic
mother that I mentioned. And sort of going through her
life from the point of view of her being Norma
Jean, we were, that’s who we all are, you know. Some people turn
into a public figure but you’re always moving
your own, your own self. So that’s what excited
me about it. Originally, it was going to
be a post-modernist parable that would end after
about 150 pages when she gets her
name Marilyn Monroe because that was the name
given to her by the studio. And the novel was going
to end at that point. But it was only about 150 pages. But then I got to that point, I
thought, oh, I can’t stop this because the great
drama, the great tragedy and the epic lies ahead. So I pushed forward and I did
a fair amount of research, most of it was watching Norma
Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe in chronological order in
Marilyn Monroe’s films, seeing the development
of a young actress. She’s quite different in the
beginning and she evolves. She was actually a
wonderful actress and she was totally
underestimated. She was held in a kind
of contempt in Hollywood. She was considered
like a B actress. People liked, it was with
Taylor or Olivia de Havilland, maybe like the A actresses
and Marilyn Monroe was sort of on this other level. She eventually made millions
of dollars for other people but didn’t make all that
much money for herself. So the more I learned about
her, the more amazed I was and the more immersed to know that she died possibly
of suicide. And when she died, she had
so little money in the bank that her body was brought
to the LA County morgue, not to a private funeral home because there wasn’t
really enough money. Only because that Joe
DiMaggio, one of her husbands, stepped forward and provided
money for her funeral. So I was always working
with these profound ironies of how one of the most famous
women in history would wind up so relatively poor that she
would be in this, you know, in the morgue where
people were taking pictures of her body, you know. To me, the ironies were
fantastic because she’s on Playboy Woman of the Century. So to be the Woman of the
Century but at the same time, lying in the morgue slab and
having your picture taken naked, how does that go
together and what does that say about being a woman? Those are the reasons
that I wrote the novel.>>Emily Eakin: Fascinating
and am I right, Joyce, that you’re on Twitter? I learned that “Blonde”
is now maybe a film for Netflix [applause]?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes. Yeah, so “Blonde” is
supposed to be developed for a film on Netflix. But I have to say that it had
been under option for so long that any number of
beautiful blonde young women, they came along and it
was signed to do the role but then they aged
out [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: This time,
it may really happen.>>Joyce Carol Oates: One
of them was Naomi Watts. Like one of them is like a
death, kiss of death, you know, you assign [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: All right, well,
on that note, we need to end. Thank you, Joyce Carol
Oates, for speaking with us. [ Applause ]

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